February 28, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Don’t add it up

By |2018-03-21T19:46:23+01:00October 24th, 2015|"In Provincia"|
Soup with cavolo nero, Tuscan kale, and borlotti beans, cranberries.

ooking trends fascinate me even when I find them silly. As a cook obsessed with discovering new and better ways to prepare anything, I’m attracted by what’s new and exciting.

The recent buzz seems focused on recipes with five (or fewer) ingredients. Google “Stupid Easy Recipes 5 Ingredients” and you get about a million results. “Easy 5 Ingredients Recipes” without the “stupid” brings a whopping 41 million.

Where, I wonder, have I been all these years? I’ve never once numerically added up ingredients.

The “stupid easy recipes” approach seems to assume the world is made up of incompetents who may know how to operate all 104 keys of their laptop but can’t possibly fix themselves anything more sophisticated than a bowl of cereal. It’s condescending and unfair.

But take heart, my dear unskilled cooks: I actually believe you’re anything but hopeless. Aside from basics such as salt and pepper, oil or butter, and common aromatics (onion, garlic and carrots, etc.), you hardly ever need more than five ingredients to make everyday food. There’s just no need for all this counting.

You do need to understand the ingredients, which means buying fresh, good quality ones and combining them as simply as possible. If what you’ve picked tastes good, all you need to do is chop and cook — and even then only as long as necessary.

Instead of randomly mixing up whatever’s in your fridge or larder, try creating layers of flavor. How? By evaluating each component of the recipe rather than just tossing in the condiments. Make flavor distinctive by using only one spice or only one herb. Respect the texture of foods. Some are good when crunchy and some should be soft and creamy, so cook your ingredients separately, based on their needs.

Be modest. I know you love garlic, bacon or maybe chili pepper or cilantro. But adding heaps of a dominant element just cancels out the other aromas. It’s like always wearing the same color: it gets boring after a while.

To get you started, here’s an easy (and relaxing) cranberry and kale soup recipe. As for the number of ingredients, put aside your arithmetic and focus on flavor.

Soup with cavolo nero and borlotti beans (Serves 4)

Main ingredients

  • 150 gr (5 oz) dry or 450 g (16 oz) cooked borlotti (cranberry) beans.

  • 250 g (1/2 lb) cavolo nero (Tuscan kale).

For the vegetable stock

  • 1 onion.

  • 1 carrot.

  • 1 celery stick.

  • 1 small tomato.

Additional ingredients

  • 3 garlic cloves, very finely minced.

  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds.

  • 2-3 sage leaves.

  • Extra virgin olive oil, top quality.

  • One small fresh chili pepper very thinly sliced (optional).


— If you’re using dry beans, soak them overnight, then rinse and drain. Place them in a pot and soak under at least 10 cm (4 inches) water. Add the stock vegetables, cover and simmer for one-to-three hours — depending on age and size of the beans — until tender.

— If you’re using cooked beans, boil the stock vegetables in water for 10 minutes. Add beans to the stock and boil for 10 more minutes. If you’re cooking the beans in advance, cool and refrigerate or freeze until needed.

— Remove the center stalks from the cavolo nero leaves and discard. Wash and blanch in 5 cm (2 inches) of boiling water for 4 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water to preserve the beautiful deep green color. Squeeze the excess moisture away with and chop roughly. Refrigerate until needed.

— When ready to serve the soup, sauté the garlic and fennel seeds in olive oil until fragrant, less than a minute. Add the kale, sage and the beans with a few ladlefuls of their cooking liquid. Salt lightly and bring to low boil. If you want a spicy soup, at this juncture add the fresh chili pepper.

— Serve in large bowls sprinkled with your best olive oil.

And don’t even think of adding all this up.

About the Author:

Letizia Mattiacci wrote the "In Provincia" column from 2011 through 2019.